Editor's Note: While this article was written before the huge popularity of the Internet, we think that some of its arguments are still worthwhile. It can be freely quoted or reprinted, so long as it is attributed and the Douglass-Truth Institute is notified of its use.
by D. E. Cracraft
REAR VIEW MIRROR SHADES
Cyberpunk, cyberspace, cybershamanism? Cybernetics. A word invented in the 1940s. From the Greek for steersman: Kybernetes. Machines for control, direction, steering. What we, in the innocence of those days, expected from our machines. The heady days of the Giant Electronic Brains - that seemed - in the American subconscious - to have the same wildly polarized nature as the aliens that populate science fiction movies: either Michael Rennie, the wise, paternal representative of the higher powers (standing slightly wounded in the door of the silvery craft, warning: Nik Klaatu Fubar) or the invasion of the unspeakable pod people. Computers in particular and technology in general, like Aliens, really activate the Hopes and Fears Department where, in one wing, with sweat beading on brow after worried brow, tightly-clenched blunt pencils ask: Will Computers Replace People? Are We Being De-humanized? What About Radiation? In the other, less oppressive wing of Hopes & Fears, professional boosters in wide ties and white shoes arrange sophisticated sales presentations with slide shows, balloons, and comely models. For better or worse, the Fears department seems to be on a roll; these days not many really believe that old Promethean line anymore - the only people that seem to push tech with any vigor are the ones that stand to make a direct profit from it. Science Fiction had for forty years explored that polarity, through and beyond the very flowering of the American Empire. Then after ten years of Punk's attack on the vapidity of the seventies, in the early eighties a few SF authors began to express this ambivalence with a new hipness, combining a Mcluhanesque grasp of the give and take of technology with the extraordinary cynicism of Punk: Cyberpunk. The ribbon was cut by William Gibson's groundbreaking 1983 novel Neuromancer. The writing itself: outlaw imagery, story lines lifted from the likes of Raymond Chandler, hipster dialog, and an intense awareness of the depth and the implications of our involvement with technology. After a few bright years, "Cyberpunk" became something more and something less than a tag for a loose group of young science fiction writers. Less in the sense that for writers, CP (Cyberpunk) has become nothing more than a marketing strategy, a commodifiable image. More in that it's become inspiration for a certain kind of pseudo-rebellious trend-seeker, and in that it has provided, courtesy Gibson, Cyberspace, the crucial concept for a whole movement. There's a whole index of issues and ideas that constellate around Cyberpunk.: Drugs, Hi-Tech Obsession, Conspiracy/Control theories, but what really gets pupils dilated and credits exchanged is Virtual Reality (VR): the emblematic metaphor and technology for the subculture that likes to think of itself as On The Edge. Cyberspace is the world of VR.
IS IT LIVE OR IS IT MEMOREX?
Up springs a PoMo cottage industry analysing and commenting upon Cyberpunk (including this article, natch); the texts unfailingly invoke the name of the Masters, e.g. Burroughs, P. K. Dick, Rudy Rucker, and Thomas Pynchon, perhaps in the hope that some of the greatness will rub off. Profundity through association. There's thickets of quotations from florid French philosophers and their imitators - maybe I just don't have a taste for this stuff - laying out both slightly inane thoughts, and portentous common sense (they must get paid by the word, like Scrabble - extrapoints for neologisms) like, "...it must be clear that it is our [i.e., Postmodernists'] business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented."Absolutely! Or, "[VR invokes] the replacement of the Real by simulation, leaving the Real increasingly irrelevant." Well, sure, simulation is part of the Real, just as Disneyland is undeniably there down in Anaheim, but how that renders the Real (whatever that is) irrelevant is beyond me.
"...REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY REAL..."
There's been more than a few critics of this movement - some saying that it's the same old stuff SF with a glittery coating - updating Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler detective rap with references to a few modern bands and a deft touch with tech jargon. Others, more willing to accept the CP and VR on their own terms have more trenchant criticism, discussing the question that most treatments simply beg: What is reality? It may be that the most salutary effect VR has is that it implies this question - after all "virtual" means "not really". If VR is not-really-real, what is really real? Is it a stupid question? Does widespread use of VR mean that we'll be wandering around Plato's Cave watching virtual versions of those famous shadows on teeny little TVs? Articles on VR have appeared in Tricycle, a very tony journal dedicated to Buddhism (in an piece titled "Samsara Squared"), Whole Earth Review, and Sunday supplements coast-to-coast. If it's not the next big thing it won't be for lack of coverage. A recent issue of the Seattle poetry journal Talking Raven was devoted to Cyberpunk and Virtual Reality ("Close But No Cigar"), and it took a different approach, taking the reality of the body seriously, noting that CP in fictional form and VR here today, seem to offer escape from the flesh. Indeed, CP fiction is heavy with the theme of escaping the meat into cyberspace, and/or merging flesh and tech with all kinda fashionable and shocking implants and prostheses. Just - as an aside - consider the poignant case of Commander Data for a take on our ambivalent attitudes toward technology + human flesh. Antero Alli, Talking Raven's editor, writes, "Civilian VR promises a completely PASSIVE HEAVEN for TELEVISIONARIES raised on digital sound bytes, pixilated images, and too much sugar."
"THINGS ARE MORE LIKE THEY ARE NOW THAN THEY EVER WERE BEFORE."
Dwight D. Eisenhower
That all this is in large measure an adolescent-male-type phenomenon should surprise no one. The guys - at least in our Wstrn Civ - always congregate around and virtually worship whatever technology is currently on the edge, whether it's Ham radio or hotrods. The fetishization of toys and tools appears in all the CP books, and reaches its unseemly zenith in the MaxHip magazine Mondo 2000, where fashion spreads show - ironically, to be sure, but still! - young lovelies with computer chip earrings, LED necklaces, and CD-ROM anklets. The Gear, the computers, the boards, the parts and accessories, all get the same loving and single-minded attention, proprietary devotion and sublimated sexuality that the motorcycles and cars got, and still get among the nostalgically inclined. Interest in the effects and potential of the Gear (i.e. Getting Somewhere Else) is often secondary to the admiration of the Gear itself. Admiring a Harley is nearly as enjoyable as actually riding one. We've got tribal identification with brand names - instead of Chevy and Ford, Harley and Triumph, there's Apple, SG, Unix, whatever. Given typical product cycles, these move pretty quickly, but that's part of the fun. Shiny eyes, tender fingers, looking over boards, drives, and monitors with that faraway look. Neuromancer's hero Case thinks more of his hotshit Ono-Sendai Holo-deck than of any human around....
WHO RUN IT?
Conspiracies and Control are obsessions common to Burroughs, Dick, and Pynchon. The Olde Masters took matters to delightful extreme in this area, but it is close to the bone in almost all CP work that follows. With so many control systems (e.g. politics, religion) in various states of mortis, decrepitude, and un-death, devolving to mere theater, we unwilling postmodernists are naturally concerned with who or what might really be Running It. If anyone. Which shadowy eminences and conspiracies? What odd, pataphysical Entity might (even) be lurking in the Net itself, living in Cyberspace as we meat puppets blunder around thinking we matter?
One thing we got to realize from a clearheaded consideration of conspiracy theories is that we will never again have the luxury of imagining that we have any idea of what is really going on. The lure of fundamentalism always lurks to the side for those who cannot stand such indeterminacy, and, who don't have the stomach for living a state of total irony (just another way to keep It at bay). The Conspiracy issue seems to be a just an interesting sidelight to the whole feenom, but it really is central - it is, again, The Idea of Power. You have the inside dope. No one's fooling you. Perhaps one attraction to the Virtual world - in which all the options are Your Choice - is the reluctance to face that we - none of us - will ever ever really know what is going on. Ever again. No one will ever know who killed JFK, MLK, or the Pope... or if the pope is an alien, for cryin out loud. We live, truly, in mystery. The cyberpunk conceit is that knowledge - or data, rather - is power, and hence, control. On trivial levels that's certainly true, but no matter how fast the computers get, how synthetic the drugs, or how inside the info is, they, we, will never know.
VIRTUAL REALITY : COKE OF THE NINETIES?
Tim Leary said that PCs (personal computers) are the LSD of the eighties. While this is to some extent typical Learian hyperbole, there is a kernel of truth to it. First of all, both had the same entry point into our culture: The Department of Defense. LSD and many other drugs were brought to us by the Pentagon, in its obsessive search for Truth serums and mind-fuck agents. VR is even more of a child of the military, being the civilian and so far considerably less-capable spinoff of technology designed to simulate the operation of planes, tanks, and humvees for raw recruits not to be trusted with the real thing. And, as LSD became the center of a cult, a whole cultural movement, so it is with VR. We've got dreadlocked inventor Jaron Lanier - one of the prime movers of VR technology - saying that VR is nothing less than the agent of a new post-literate communication, the agent of an evolutionary leap equal to that of the discovery/invention of language. Whew! The association of VR's alleged evolutionary potential with drug analogies is so natural that journalists are fond of relaying Lanier's nervousness at any comparison of VR to DRUGS, because he fears that the technology might somehow be made illegal. And, speaking of drugs, there's Terence McKenna, the brilliant theorist and story teller, as well as No. 1 biped advocate of civil rights for Psilocybin mushrooms (hey, I'm convinced), asking the question (Archaic Revival, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991): [Is VR] "mechanistic multimedia masturbation or a doorway swinging open on the flower strewn fields of the romantic imagination?" While giving service to the possible 3M downside McKenna seems sold on the marvelousness, being moved to say (after perhaps one too many cups of coffee), "We are on the brink of another leap in evolution, folks."Claims that VR is the high road to the imaginal realm naturally invites a comparison to drugs - but Lanier's fears that VR might somehow be criminalized are almost certainly unfounded, and probably a bit of unconscious hype. Technology is as American as a surgical strike.
Harking back to the 50's notion of the world being taken over by The Giant Electronic Brain, enough writers have portrayed THE NET (hardware substrate of Cyberspace - think of all the phones in the world, all the computers, the satellites...) being occupied by various entities that the idea seems almost to be a part of our unconscious. Gibson's Neuromancer has a mysterious artificial intelligence taking control of the world's computers. His Count Zero shows the net as a playground for the Loas of Voudon. The forgettable Lawnmower Man takes too many Smart Drugs, Jacks In, and suddenly he's all big electronic eyes, calling Everyone in the World: "Pick up if you're home!!"William Irwin Thompson is a respectable cultural historian who's covered everything from the Goddess to what he calls the American Replacement of Nature (his latest book.) In one his loopiest scenarios, [a] God has descended into the Silicon Magic Mountain of a DOD computer, while outside the gates, torch-bearing Luddite hippies try - the fools! - to destroy the infernal machine...
UNSATISFIED DESIRE MOTIVATES TECHNOLOGY
Michael Douglas, Talking Raven
We must regard the self-serving and high-toned claims for VR with massive skepicism if not outright disposal. All existing primitive VR technologies, that is, radio, TV, movies - were touted by their inventors and financial boosters as harbingers of the great world of the future. Education! Culture! Soon enough, of course, they largely became selling tools, selling either products or a world view. There is no doubt at all that VR will be used in the same way: VR is gonna be the next big thing, a combination of HDTV and Disneyland (with all the delightful, ominous implications that suggests); it will create a new class of consumers, and a small number of creators, just as every other technology of entertainment has. McKenna and Lanier's Brave New World rhetoric, the ads and articles in Mondo 2000 - while sometimes cloaked in pomo irony - evoke, for me, the blind techno faith not seen since the World's Fair of the 1930s: Personal Helicopters... Robot Farms... gleaming towers connected by gossamer freeways... where we'll all live in tubes and push buttons! Circa 1950: "..we are entering on the New Industrial Revolution which will supply our every need ... quickly... cheaply... abundantly!" Ha Ha. No one believes that one anymore, do they? But Wait! Now you can have it all - Virtually! We are asked to picture (now slip on your Eyephones and dataglove) a moonlit night at the Taj Majal, so lovely so ethereal, so neat! And - I thought you'd never ask - of course if people think sex is fun using the pitiful 3000 Hz bandwidth of the ordinary telephone, just think (just think!) what we'll be able to do in our washable Sony Datasuits. It's Teledildonics! You're with the actor-actress of Your Choice in the romantic setting of Your Choice, endlessly indulging in Your Choice.Yes, the wonders of Virtual Sex: full-contact suit, motion sensors, pressure transducers, high-bandwidth channels, I mean, I think that in the midst of this enthusiasm certain fundamentals are being ignored. I like new toys and tools as a much as the next guy, but the world that professional VR boosters promise is, in many ways, simply MORE. The shopping mall taken to its virtual extreme. Samsara squared, perhaps. Rudy Rucker recently wrote that the best thing about VR is that it might make us appreciate what's there when we take the goggles off. VR could also be used for some interesting training programs... but...
WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY - REALLY?
But what if these crazy guys are right, and VR really is an electronic doorway to OZ? Not just a bunch of brain-dead consumers drooling onto their data-suits, but a door opened to the Last Best Place. The imaginal realm - our dreams - is about all we have left to call truly our own, that the government hasn't taken away or business hasn't stolen to sell back to us. Remember Sam Lowrie? America was colonized by those seeking furs, gold, and space; as we all know, a great many of the original inhabitants of this land were terminated in that operation. Will the same thing happen to dreamtime? Are there denizens of the imaginal realm existing now, at peace, living at the carrying capacity of dreamtime, adapted to life on the Other Side - who are going to be murdered by the salesmen of shoes cigarettes and salvation? Maybe I've had one cup too many myself... but... We live in a culture where language itself is "colonized"by armed usurpers ("uh-huh" "just do it" "somebody finally did it right" "keep it simple," all property now) and genes - life forms - are patented. So don't think that They won't at least try find a way to own your dreams and sell them back to you - if VR does happen to present a way into your head, then it will be so used. The question isn't, Will commerce try to take over all the rides in Virtual-Reality-Land, but, What will the individual be able to do to protect her own little dreamtime homestead from InfoTainment and CNN? The imagination is the enemy of the powers that be; it is the last thing They haven't occupied. And if They can't Run It, they'd rather you don't go there. Come on: is there any other reason for the criminalization of such physically innocuous and non-addictive plants as hemp, peyote, and psilocybin?
I CAN'T HEEEEAAAR YOU!
It is claimed that there are several ways in which VR could become the basis for an entirely new kind of communication between people. By, for example, offering paralinguistic capability, a way to get beside the language channel into non-verbal symbolic space. The problem I have with this line of thinking is the assumption that such a capacity doesn't already exist. It does, in fact, and people on the whole don't seem too interested in it. One of the reasons people seem to enjoy the truncated social exchange of computer networks and bulletin boards is that it narrows the channel of communication to even less than the normal telephone. You can't hear emphasis, sarcasm, insecurity, bluster, or flummery in ASCII code. This is seen by many people to be the great advantage that such intercourse has over face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication. The point being of course that we already have a vast paralinguistic capability that we use without for the most part even being aware of it. Some theorists posit that as much as 90% of communication is transacted non-verbally, by so-called body language (a part of our mammal heritage), smell, touch, taste... This is the kind of thing we in our generally body-fearing culture want to avoid, and I suspect that social VR will be a way to pose and present an artificially constructed persona - one that we, in our actual sweating, pouchy bodies, will be able to stand behind. Why do so many us wear sunglasses?
What Cyberpunk has come to represent - paradoxically - is both a criticism of and a celebration of the virtualization of modern life. Everything is moving in the direction of the ersatz, and Virtual Reality is a hi-tek way of going with the flow. Poetic Terrorist Hakim Bey (whose book Temporary Autonomous Zones you really ought to read), in Talking Raven, presents a notion called Immediatism. Doing things - right now - that aren't mediated by conceptual or technological dividers. To mediate is to come between - and the more media we have separating us, the more they try to simulate the real thing (see?) the farther we get from the center. As Bey says, "...these things make good toys but terrible addictions..."
©1994 DTI by D. E. Cracraft
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